One of the thoughts that flitted through my wee noggin in 2007 while deciding whether to head to HK (it’s been a yield of a myriad blessings, on the whole) was that this could be a stepping stone to working in Taipei. I’m indefinitely not the same moi I was 3.5 years back, though. I don’t have such a fever for the place anymore — twas a fever induced by this character, anyway:
But I do enjoy being in Taipei whenever I’m there. I like the people, I like the food, I like the shops, I like the scenery … can remember only one truly ugh-some experience there, when I was approached by some cult-ish person in a bookstore. This post is all about the places I’ve particularly enjoyed in Taipei City.
Easily the best bookstore I’ve been to in Asia, and I imagine it ranks among the best in the world. I’m terribly impressed by its:
- 2 a.m. closing times and 24-hour branch — it’s a wondrous comfort to know that a bookstore is always open where you’re at (only equivalent in Singapore is Mustafa’s textbook section … and there’s no 24-hour non-supermarket shop I know of in HK).
- Xinyi branch (pictured right) — big, bold and beautiful, it’s undergirded by a tasty food department and capped by a beautifully curated music and video store. Like a constantly evolving, gorgeously presented book gallery, it even has an actual gallery space with moveable walls so it can be easily converted into a chamber for book-related talks. A must-visit.
- stationery section — stationery shops in Taipei are generally awesome.
- book selection — the only place I’ve ever spotted Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.
I must say that the Taiwanese know how to do class — the kinda class that needs no explanation; you just sense it in your bones. Head down (and up) this beaut of a skyscraper (pictured left) to get a whiff of what I’m tokkin’ about. The surrounding area comprises grand boulevards and monuments like the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (I would deem that a must-visit too).
Oh, close to Exit 2 of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall MRT station, there’s a street called Guangfu South that not only has my latest HG shampoo/conditioner/scalp treatment co. Mr Hair, but also a Korean restaurant specialising in stew, just stew. (There was a whole fried fish among the side dishes! And it was here that I realised just how conscientious Taiwanese service is — I was asked exactly what I did and did not want in the soup stock since I’d chosen a vegetarian dish.) There’s also a delightfully moody little cafe called La Crema, with must-tries like the iced coffee special and affogato (technical term for espresso poured over vanilla ice cream, oh my).
A shopping area that’s getting too young and vibrant for me, but always a lively outing, especially at the weekend. MY likes the vermicelli soaked in the juice of intestines available here (she says you can’t taste the regular off-ness in this version), while I like spring onion pancakes better. That brings me to …
… which has a small corner stall selling spring onion pancakes that are must-try (with chilli sauce too). Apart from that almost-prata goodness, there’s the original Din Tai Fung, if you care for that (plus a multi-storied bookstore just beside it!), but more importantly, many many many other good little eateries (like Cello Pasta and Ice Monster — it’s recently re-opened under new management) and lovely boutiques and best of all a shop specialising in fairtrade goods! If I ever get to long-term in Taipei, this will be the first place where I’ll look for accommodations. There’s no MRT stop nearby though, so you’ll have to cab (relatively cheap in Taipei) or bus to the place. I found out that the fairtrade shop and a boutique with the ‘bumpkin chic’ I tend to gravitate towards have opened branches adjacent to Taipei Film House (closest MTR stop: Zhongshan), an arthouse cinema / cafe / video shop converted from the former residence of the US ambassador.
Think I tried to visit as many of these as possible with WLam and MY once, and ended up discovering there was one near just about every MRT stop in the city, though each had its own characteristics. Give the biggest one a go (i.e. Shilin — love its labyrinthine nature and shaved ‘snow’ ice), but try not to forgo the others (and remember to bargain!).
I have fond memories of the one at Gongguan, which has the best bubble milk tea I’ve ever tasted (stall pictured below). Gongguan is also the stop for elites-only National Taiwan University, with its attendant student haunts — ah, I recall sneaking into the campus with WLam and MY, and ending up at a Buddhist Club/Society freshers gathering! It was terribly cold that day — my first experience of the wet and wild 寒流 (cold stream) — and we ended up at a two-storey cafe having strangely named tea that’s good for the throat (MY will know the name; I can’t recall — something about the sea?). That cafe is still standing as of June, I’m glad to report.
One more point about night markets (this travel guide has devolved into a set of fuzzy memories!) — beware, for they are strangely addictive yet thoroughly tiring, and will leave you with a thirst for commerce past department store opening hours (incidentally also when street vendors bust out their wares along Zhongxiao Road East, already an intense shopping belt).
Though intended for wholesalers (i.e. boutiques haul their wares from here), you can buy retail from most stalls here. And boy, can you buy to your heart’s content. There are some pretty good eats to be had too (e.g. fried chicken cutlet if you’re into that), though beware if you have sinusitis — the place might turn you into a human sneeze. HK’s equivalent (which I’ve only recently discovered!) is at the Hong Kong Industrial Centre just outside Lai Chi Kok Exit C.
Taipei Main Station
This is a public transport hub (including stops for the much vaunted High Speed Rail and the slower but still trustworthy TRA trains) with a Bookshop Street that’s actually called Chongqing Street South which is, yes, studded with bookshops (possibly because the area is a hotbed of cram schools), and crowned by a stunning multi-storey stationery shop (the one in Mong Kok is no match, I’m afraid). The serene yet haunting 228 Memorial Museum and Park is nearby (sorta pictured below), solemnly watching over the memory of yet another massacre of innocents (this reminds me to write about Maus: A Survivor’s Tale one day).
Other, further-flung wortha-visits near Taipei include Danshui, Keelung and Jiufen — and hey, you can combine the latter two as a day trip. Try to catch the sunset at Danshui (1st below) and the dirt-cheap and tasty curry rice at the temple market at Keelung (town itself is 2nd below). At Jiufen, remember to bring a brolly or raincoat — it rains, like, 300 days out of the year there. I like the solid chunks of ginger-sugar they sell there (great for easing troubles), a quaint little ceramics shop nestled in a quiet bit just off the top of the town, and certainly the views bring a soothing sort of delight (3rd below). Then there’s Yangmingshan for flowers in spring, Beitou for reinvigorating hot springs (saved my poor bones from the aforementioned 寒流), and Wulai (4th below) for, well, serenity.
Reflecting on the country itself, Taiwan isn’t perfect, of course — there is a slight and more-than-slight eeks factor now and then, and the roadside pollution can be killer (as can the traffic!) — but the place has a way of gentling my soul (even as it terrorises it at times), especially when I venture out into its magnificence. The grandest thing I’ve seen on the island so far has to be Taroko Gorge (inadequately pictured below), but equally grand has been the kindness and generosity I’ve experienced from a good number of the people I’ve encountered.
If you’re heading there … just don’t climb a mountain by yourself and you’ll be fine.
[Addendum 29 July 2010: I can’t believe I forgot the National Palace Museum!!! Must visit. If only just for the kong bak jade.]
[Addendum 29 May 2013: moar on Taipei, moar]